No stage production this year has been more anticipated than the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis staging of the exquisite Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical A Little Night Music, an elegant roundelay about the whims and wiles of love and lust. What were we to expect from the production: opera or theater? The answer is: a bit of both. This lavish hybrid, which has been staged and designed by the unorthodox fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi in his directorial debut, shakes the senses and makes mush of preconceptions.
Based on Ingmar Bergman's sensuous 1955 romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, the plot chronicles various infidelities during a weekend in the country in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Sweden. Although most productions (including the definitive 1973 Broadway scenic design by Boris Aronson) tend to evoke Sweden through willowy birch trees, the current reimagining has been more influenced by the original Broadway show poster, which depicts a single stately oak whose branches are filled with spectral lovers. Mizrahi has designed three giant oaks. Then, borrowing from A Midsummer Night's Dream, he has transformed Night Music's Greek chorus of operetta singers into the confused lovers from Midsummer and adorned them with fairy wings. It's as if we're getting both Puck and Lysander, sprite and human, in the same persona — and that persona also happens to sing.
"They've opera-fied it," a woman was heard to explain during intermission to a confused couple. "That's what they said at the pre-show lecture." Alas, one of the problems with "opera-fying" is that at some point the realities of a production have to be wedged into the abstract concept. What happens here is that the scene changes through and around these giant trees slow the pace to a crawl; pixies, it turns out, are not efficient furniture movers. And yet, while most of this conceptualizing occurs on the stage's outer edges, at stage center A Little Night Music is playing out essentially oblivious to these add-ons (which, ironically, might be part of Mizrahi's concept). The three lead performances would stand out in any Night Music anywhere.
Amy Irving is a radiant Desiree Armfeldt, the actress who is trying to change her life by rekindling the love of an old flame. Irving emanates the porcelain beauty of a cherry-cheeked Hummel figurine; she moves with grace and poise. Though she is not a trained singer, she glides through her introductory song, "The Glamorous Life," on brio alone. The better-known "Send in the Clowns" is a more daunting challenge that Irving embraces. Literally, for she hugs the lyric as if it's a lifeline; she carefully enunciates every word so that this familiar song sounds fresh. (Mizrahi helps her out with some strategically placed autumn leaves.)
The somnolent Fredrik, object of Desiree's designs, is the most difficult acting role, because he's so passive. But Ron Raines is rock solid. From the moment he begins to sing the challenging "Now," there's a comfort level about Raines. We know that he knows what he's doing onstage. His Fredrik delivers more colors than usual. (Happily, Raines will be back in July to help sink the Titanic at the Muny.) As Desiree's solitaire-playing mother, Sian Phillips is an august Madame Armfeldt. The old dowager does little other than to sit quietly and toss out pithy bons mots, but Phillips delivers her quips as if she has no awareness of their humor. They are simply the observations of a long life lived richly and foolishly and just in time (because the world is spiraling downhill, and that's no laughing matter).
But as admirable as Irving, Raines and Phillips are, the evening's real star, as it always must be, is composer Stephen Sondheim. There has never been so jewel-like a score in contemporary musical theater. Written in the manner of Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, this seemingly endless array of scherzos, minuets, polonaises, barcaroles and waltzes (especially as gorgeously played by the 49-piece symphony orchestra under the direction of Stephen Lord) pay tribute to the lost world of operetta — even as Sondheim's coruscating lyrics are more sophisticated than anything that has preceded them. How joyous it is to listen to an audience laugh en masse at song lyrics.
In addition to the three stolid trees, a grand piano sits downstage left and never moves. It requires little stretch of imagination to believe that this is Stephen Sondheim's piano. He may be unseen, but he is not unheard. For like A Midsummer Night Dream's fairies, he too is here onstage, channeling every witty note. His is not merely the music of a night, but rather of a generation, and we are all the beneficiaries.